Ed note: We continue our series devoted to tunes that hold special places in our hearts and in our collective experience as devotees to and lovers of timeless indie rock. To kick the series off, we asked Eric Matthews, of both solo and Cardinal fame, to talk about his classic number “Fanfare,” from his 1995 Sub Pop hit It’s Heavy in Here.Next wasBill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom pulling back the curtain on one of his early gems: “Taillights Fade,” from 1992’sLet Me Come Over, cut with fellow bandmembers Chris Colbourn (bass) and Tom Maginnis (drums). After that we dipped way back to 1970 for the proto-power pop of Crabby Appleton’s “Go Back,” penned by frontman Michael Fennelly. Now Prof. Hinely dials the wayback machine to 2000, as John Conley talks about his band the California Oranges and their pop gem “John Hughes.”
BY TIM HINELY
You’d think that being two hours east of San Francisco that Sacramento would be a veritable wasteland of musical talent. Ah…but you’d be wrong. Oddly enough for the capitol city of the Golden State (with a population of under 500,000) this hamlet has produced some of the best indie rock music out there. From Tiger Trap to Rocketship to Baby Grand to Arts & Leisure to too many others (you’ll see ‘em below). Well, a big part of that fabric is the music of the crew of John Conley and his sister Katie, the Levine Brothers (Ross and his brother Matt) and Verna Brock (who was also in Rocketship for a time as well as doing her solo project under the name of Beanpole). They’ve been spread out amongst bands like Holiday Flyer, Desario and Soft Science, but there was one band that all of them had passed through at one point: California Oranges.
For their self-titled debut from 2000 (On Darla Records) the band was a trio of John, Verna and Ross. For later albums both Katie and Matt came aboard to make the band a 5-piece, but this particular song, “John Hughes” was from the previously mentioned debut.
For those of us used to the (mostly) very soft sounds of Holiday Flyer, “John Hughes” came popping out of the speakers like an M-80 stuffed inside a high school locker. A joyous blast of unbridled melody. The song is all about a guy trying to get the courage to ask a girl out, which, as we males know, in those high school years were the mostly nerve-racking, anxiety-inducing experience (personally I had to know 100% that the girl liked me before I would even ask her out and even then I’d be ready to have a heart attack while other guys in school, those with no fear at all of rejection, would walk up to any girl an ask them out, usually getting shot down and laugh about it).
“John Hughes” is one of my favorite songs by the California Oranges and I was curious about its origins. I shot some questions over to John Conley and he was more than happy to give me some answers.
BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?
CONLEY: Well, I guess John Hughes and his films. As I teenager I could really identify with the characters. I must have been re-watching at the time. I was also really into Kevin Smith (he is referenced is the song) and his films reminded of the Hughes.
Did it take long to finish writing it?
If I remember correctly, it came together pretty quick.
I think it was one of the last songs I wrote for the first album.
I had the main guitar riff and the melody and first verse.
I remember showing the song to Verna and Ross, and they both really liked it.
I think we knew at that point it would start the album.
Any idea how your long time fans feel about it (i.e.: would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?)
I’m pretty sure it was one of our most popular songs. I was going to be featured in a documentary about John Hughes. Ross Levine and I were interview for the movie and the band rerecorded the song to be included on the soundtrack. We were told we made it through the 3rd or 4th cut of the film. During the editing process of the movie John Hughes passed away and the music portion of the movie was shortened.
Was it a staple of your live sets ever years later?
It stayed in the live set up through the 3rd album.
Is there anything about the song you’d change?
No, I think it’s a good snapshot of where I was as a songwriter at the time.
I wanted to do something very different from Holiday Flyer. I feel we mostly succeed. When the band started playing live, one comparisons we got was Belle and Sebastian meets Ramones.
I always liked that.
Tell me a little about the recording of it – where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.?
I think the recording came out cool. We wrote and recorded that album very quickly. Verna (Brock) and I each had 5 song ideas. We rehearsed with Ross (Levine) 3 or 4 times and recorded and mixed the record in the evenings or a week. JH is my favorite song on that album. I do have some problems with the production on that album as a whole, but “John Hughes” came out great. We also recorded a cover of Vanilla Blue by Naked Raygun during that session that is one of my favorite recordings California Orange did.
How do you feel about it now? I still really like this song. It’s so different from what I’m doing now in Desario, but I’m proud of this period in my music career.
In which a former detractor (sorta…) decides maybe it’s time to eat his words (or Mojo Nixon’s words…) and become a huge fan (okay, maybe that’s overstating matters…). But that “Boys of Summer” song will always be a guilty pleasure, right?
BY FRED MILLS
Starting back in the late ‘70s and lasting roughly a decade, there was a distinct us-versus-them mentality at play if you were a denizen of the Amerindie underground. No righteous punk, college rocker or avant-tilting muso would be caught dead listening to the likes of Journey, Billy Joel, Hall & Oates or The Eagles, with even the occasional grey area artist such as Pink Floyd—who at one time epitomized the very notion of “underground” but became semi-permanently stained when Johnny Rotten decided to rock that infamous Floyd teeshirt emblazoned by the scrawled prefix I hate…—generally falling on the wrong side of “cool.”
Hold that thought.
Nowadays, the tracks-downloading, history-eschewing, tradition-ignoring musical milieu known as the millennials clearly fails to grasp the concept of The Enemy. How else to explain the aforementioned Hall & Oates’ inexplicable latter-day ascendancy, the annoyingly adoring cheers that greet Steve Perry’s every appearance at a Giants baseball game, the historical revisionism that under-thirty music journalists routinely deploy when according the Eagles’ members “Americana godfathers” status, or the criminal lack of criticism that greeted Billy Joel’s 2013 Kennedy Center Honor? I mean, seriously; for the record, once upon a time Perry would have gotten a pie in the face if he turned up someplace in public without one of his handler/bodyguards that routinely flanked him back during his Journey tenure, such was the vitriol “we” harbored. But those days are gone, and to this day I still cringe reflexively when certain artists’ names are uttered in hushed, admiring tones. And I say this freely admitting that, yes, there will always be certain songs that rank as guilty pleasures for moi, like “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Maneater” and “Takin’ It Easy”—although, let me be clear, I absolutely draw the line at that Joel toad.
Getting back to my denim-wearing, coke-snorting whipping boys the Eagles: in the mid ‘80s I became friends with gonzobluesabilly rocker Mojo Nixon, having reviewed his albums and regularly hanging out with him whenever he’d come to town. At the time I was living in Charlotte, NC, and as these things turn out, in 1990 I was working as the Music Editor for Queen City alternative weekly Creative Loafing, the same year Nixon released the album Otis containing the scathingly satirical song “Don Henley Must Die.” Per its title, the tune poked fun at the Eagles co-founder, essentially calling him an uptight, humorless, pompous egomaniac—which, at the time, was generally the reputation Henley had garnered; a laid-back, taking-it-easy, Laurel Canyon hippie type he was not. Mojo Nixon, of course, had made a career sending up pop culture and its icons, but the Henley track was particularly brutal—or sweet, depending on your perspective.
Here’s the Nixon song; the lyrics follow, and after those there’s a revealing MTV interview with Nixon (“What the hell does Don Henley do? It’s not rock and roll!”)
This is the sound of my brain.
Then I said, this is the sound of my brain on Don Henley!
Then I said, 1 2 3 4…
He’s a tortured artist
Used to be in the Eagles
Now he whines
Like a wounded beagle
Poet of despair!
Pumped up with hot air!
He’s serious, pretentious
And I just don’t care
Don Henley must die!
Don’t let him get back together
With Glenn Frey!
Don Henley must die!
Turn on the TV
And what did I see?
This bloated hairy thing
Winning a Grammy
Best Rock Vocalist?
Compared to what?
But your pseudo-serious
Crafty Satanic blot
Don Henley must die!
Put a sharp stick in his eye!
Don Henley must die!
Yea yea yea
Quit playin’ that crap
You’re out of the band
I’m only kidding
Can’t you tell?
I love his sensitive music
Idiot poetry, swell
You and your kind
Are killing rock and roll
It’s not because you are O L D
It’s cause you ain’t got no soul!
Don’t be afraid of fun
Loosen up your ponytail!
Be wild, young, free and dumb
Get your head out of your tail
Don Henley must die!
Don’t let him get back together
With Glenn Frey!
Don Henley must die!
Put him in the electric chair
Watch him fry!
Don Henley must die
Don Henley must die
No Eagles reunion
The same goes for you, Sting!
Er, yeah – Sting. Please add him to my above list. But I digress… The Nixon song gained a good deal of notoriety, and while I don’t specifically recall reading whether or not Henley ever came out and made a public statement about it, there’s no way he wasn’t aware of it. This was not a man to shy away from taking on the critics (for you youngsters out there, think of Henley as the Ryan Adams of his generation).
As I would learn one Monday morning later that same year…
The setlist wiki site Setlist.fm details the 1990 Don Henley tour for his Top Ten-charting The End of the Innocence, noting that Henley appeared at the Charlotte Coliseum on Saturday, July 7. As fate would have it, on that same Saturday my editor at Creative Loafing was working at our office, trying to do some catching up and taking care of preliminaries for the upcoming week. As he subsequently would inform me on Monday, the office phone rang while he was there, and since neither the secretary nor the office manager was on hand to take the call as usual, he picked up:
[brusque voice]“Is this Creative Loafing?”
“Er, yes it is…”
[combatively] “This is Don Henley.”
[more assertively] “No, I AM Don Henley. And I do not appreciate the negative comments you published about me in your so-called ‘newspaper’!”
What the person on the other end of the Loafing phone line was referring to was a concert preview blurb that had appeared in that week’s issue. Each week we compiled column called “Music Menu” comprising a selection of 75-to-125-word mini-previews of our concert picks for the upcoming week. And as I was the Music Editor, the lion’s share of those blurbs was penned by yours truly, so let the truth be told, I took it as my mission to keep the paper credible by also including pans alongside the picks. (This caused the ad sales execs no small degree of vexation when they had to placate local club owners who did not appreciate my dismissive comments about their tired cover band and whiteboy reggae bookings as opposed to the struggling punk dives’ attempts to bring in truly unique indie and underground bands, but that’s a story best saved for the memoir I’m working on…)
Henley rightly divined that he was on the receiving end of a pan; I’d love to know who brought it to his attention, or be a fly on the wall while he was reading it. But this was not just any pan; my Music Menu blurb for his concert that Saturday night—which, let’s face it, was probably sold out or close to selling out by the time he picked up the phone to call us—consisted totally of the above-quoted Mojo Nixon lyrics, no side editorial commentary by yours truly necessary. (Did I mention that compared to the vanilla approach taken by the local daily paper, we took to heart a CREEM-type snarkiness to our music coverage of the city?) By my way of thinking, it summed up our paper’s general disdain for the overtly mainstream rock acts that regularly passed through the larger venues of Charlotte.
You can check in, but you can never check out, dude.
Henley, revealing himself in all his thin-skinned glory, proceeded to read the editor the riot act, barely giving him a chance to get in a word edgewise. Eventually my boss was able to point out that (a) all we were doing was quoting lyrics, not writing a negative review; (b) we frequently adopted an irreverent attitude, which of course was at times the mandate of alternative weeklies in the U.S.; and (c) since we actually respect both Mojo Nixon AND Don Henley (& the Eagles), if he—Henley—would be interested in commenting for the record or even writing a rebuttal, we would absolutely publish it.
[Aside: just in case you are wondering at this point, no, we never questioned whether or not it was actually Henley calling. I would have asked him to sing a few bars of “Witchy Woman” just to be sure, but my editor told me that the agitation was so clearly personal that it had to be him, and that anyway, he’d heard enough interviews with Henley over the years to more or less recognize the voice. “Plus,” he added, “Don’s a known prick. No way would he delegate a call like that to some roadie.”]
Henley declined the latter offer, but he did seem somewhat placated, and calming down his tone a bit, he just groused a little bit about how the Nixon song painted him as an asshole when he was really just passionate and very outspoken at times, and that by this point he was just so sick and tired of hearing about the damn song that it rubbed him the wrong way in a major way, blah blah blah.
Fair enough. The conversation apparently ended on a moderately civil note, although I don’t think he offered to put our paper on the guest list or anything like that.
I got to hear the tale when I arrived at the office Monday morning to turn in some of my copy and check the mail. In the parlance of today’s times: WIN!!! It’s not every day that a journalist gets direct feedback from an artist about something he wrote, much less gets called on the carpet. My old friend Jim DeRogatis probably gets the Grand Prize in that regard, for his notorious Ryan Adams Telephone Altercation. But I’d like to think my crossing swords with Don Henley (admittedly, via an intermediary) counts for something.
Sometime later I was able to tell the story to Mojo, and he got a big kick out of it. And it is absolutely worth noting at this juncture that on at least one occasion Nixon and Henley intersected in a very public way: according to Nixon’s Wikipedia page, “Several years after [the release of the song] Henley jumped onstage with Nixon at The Hole in the Wall in Austin, Texas, to perform a new version of the song called ‘Rick Astley Must Die.’ When Henley jumped out of the crowd, the dumbfounded Nixon immediately asked, ‘Is Debbie Gibson here too?’ Nixon later praised Henley in this way: ‘He has balls the size of church bells!’”
Per my dek at the top, there’s a point to all this. I will freely admit to generally subscribing, for years, to the notion of Henley-as-asshole. All those tales of rampant coke snorting, groupie bonking, money-worshiping, ego-mongering Eagles die hard, no? Glenn Frey didn’t do much to dispel the image when he turned up on Miami Vice either. Ultimately, though, it’s the music that endures, not personas (or even urban legends). One of the greatest ever rock songs—and moving videos—is Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” (view itabove). To this day it brings a little catch to my throat when I hear it, and the guy has written a slew of other terrific tunes, period. I suspect Mojo, who has his own radio show nowadays as part of the “Outlaw Country Channel” on Sirius satellite radio, would agree, at least partially.
Which is why the following article, posted last week at Rolling Stone as part of Henley’s promotion for his new solo album Cass County, caught my eye: “Don Henley on ‘Sloppy’ Songwriting, National Values and Cultural Decay” reads the headline. In a nutshell, the songwriter comes off as a serious stand-up guy for art, craft, musicianship and, above all, the people who practice them. Read the entire piece, as it’s both revealing and informative, but here are a few choice quotes worth thinking about:
“Rock & roll has always been associated with rebellion, but I think rock & roll, country music and all kinds of music have always had a role to play in terms of creating community.”
“[Music] crosses political, ethnical and religious boundaries and it brings people together, so that’s why I think it’s more important than ever that we focus more on the quality of the music we’re making in this country and the message that we’re sending to the rest of the world.”
“It’s incumbent on us to export something that has some quality to it, that reflects our culture in ways that are positive and meaningful.”
“[There is] a lot of bad [country] songwriting going on, really sloppy stuff… Music will get really slick and poppy for a while and then there will be an improvement back to pure country or neo-traditional country like Randy Travis. . . He ushered in one of those neo-traditional eras back in the late Eighties and I’m hoping that’s about to happen again.”
“It’s just ridiculous, the things we focus on, how shallow our culture has become, how you can get famous now for not really accomplishing anything. Fame, at one time, was associated with accomplishment, but in this day and age fame and notoriety have become confused. If you can build a multi-million-dollar empire just by taking your clothes off and going on the Internet, there’s something very wrong with our values.”
“The things we prioritize and the things we worship are upside down. I’m really worried about American culture, and American society and politics. I’m worried about the future of my children, what kind of a country they are going to grow up in because I’ve never seen a country this divided since the Civil War. It’s not like we’re all in this together anymore. It’s every man for himself.
“[But] the survival of the individual depends on the survival of the whole. If you can’t figure out a way to come together and go forward as a group or nation, or as a whole community, then you are doomed.”
These are not the thoughts and words of an egomaniacal power monger. Sure, the dude has had his moments—extended moments, let us be honest here—of coke-fueled narcissism. But what I’m hearing here, in 2015, is a gentleman who genuinely cares about his family, his fans, his country, and the music that nurtures us. And the stuff he’s saying needs to be said. We should have more artists who are willing to speak up for what they believe in, regardless of the consequences; folks like Springsteen and Earle, even the Dixie Chicks, because I’ve never subscribed to that whole “shut up and play your guitar” mentality.
So while I can’t possibly take back any criticisms I might have made of Henley some 3 decades ago, any more than he can remove from the public record any of his comments, missteps or just plain arrogant, druggy escapades, well, hey—everybody gets a chance to grow up eventually, right? It’s up to the individual whether or not you pick up that option. Henley certainly did.
I guess I can as well. Good on you, Don. If you’re ever in the neighborhood some sunny summer afternoon, get in touch. We’ll catch a baseball game or something.
Above: Henley, pictured with Rodney Crowell, receiving a special honor at this year’s Americana Awards in Nashville. Go HERE to read our feature on the festival. (Photo by Alisa B. Cherry)
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